21st century university recruitment practices

There has been much talk in Europe over the last decade about the development of the European Higher Education and Research Areas – EHEA and ERA. While much progress has been made towards EHEA and ERA goals, considerable challenges and obstacles remain.

Although international collaboration and mobility are beginning to affect, for example, how science is funded and organised, the great paradox remains that, despite the opportunities offered by new technologies and the growing importance of internationalisation, European universities still remain largely anchored in national legal frameworks, traditions and practices.

Strong national regulation of staff status, categories, recruitment, promotion and pension opportunities remains the rule rather than the exception, making things difficult to understand for non-nationals.

European diversity, as important as it is, if and when it creates barriers, can thus also be a challenge for Europe as a whole.

We in Europe are not the only ones who see innovation as one of the main growth factors and vectors of social development. Universities everywhere are looking to attract the most talented staff and researchers and offer them the creative and supportive environment they seek.

So what are the human resource development-related challenges we face in providing an attractive environment for researchers and highly qualified staff more generally?

As I highlighted at the recent Association of Commonwealth Universities’ HR Management & PR Network Conference, the European University Association, or EUA, has surveyed university autonomy in nearly 30 European higher education systems, breaking down autonomy into four more manageable elements: finances, staffing, administrative and academic questions.

Even a quick look at the staffing and human resource-related issues – for example recruitment, payment, career and promotion prospects – shows there is generally little room for universities to manoeuvre; a distinct disadvantage in the present competitive global environment.

Increasing autonomy

However, the good news is that our analysis shows that, across most systems, there is generally more autonomy and it seems that increasing numbers of universities are finding their own way through often restrictive national rules and regulations, and have greater space in which to act more strategically than in the past.

In those countries in which certain universities have received additional funding through ‘excellence initiatives’, this has also made it easier to focus on attracting international researchers and supporting their integration.

It is also important to ensure that staff-HR management and development move to the top of institutional agendas and are prioritised in strategic plans more generally. Promoting mobility at all levels is also essential as is, for example, giving priority to the professionalisation and up-skilling of senior staff.

While the findings of our autonomy study highlight the framework in which the European Higher Education and Research Areas are moving forward, it is also important to underline the efforts already being made by universities, for example in the areas of doctoral training, research careers and mobility.

As part of our memorandum of understanding with the European Commission, which relates to working towards the European Research Area goals, the EUA carried out a survey of its membership in 2013 that gathered responses from more than 200 universities.

A quiet revolution

The survey results confirmed for example that a ‘quiet revolution’ has taken place in recent years in doctoral education and training across Europe. Structured doctoral programmes have been developed which provide greater critical mass, inter-university cooperation, transferable skills training and career development opportunities.

It is also clear that the appearance of structured programmes and doctoral schools over the last decade, including the development of clear institutional policies concerning admission procedures, progress monitoring, supervision and thesis assessment, has made doctoral education in Europe particularly attractive, not only but also to international doctoral candidates.

The EUA has been a strong advocate and promoter of these reforms through its ‘Salzburg Principles’.

However, the survey responses also indicated that there is a risk in losing the momentum of these reforms in the current period of budgetary constraints being implemented in the wake of the economic and financial crisis, which to varying degrees across Europe is having a particular impact in the higher education and research sectors.

Furthermore, the survey highlighted that national legislative frameworks continue to inhibit the ability of universities to act in an autonomous manner to develop and implement institutional policies and that the reforms required take time to implement.

The EUA’s work highlights the major changes taking place in European universities and also the importance attached to internationalisation more generally – despite the many obstacles that still exist.

Of course, these are to a large degree of a financial nature and continued progress requires more enhanced European and national funding initiatives in support of universities’ institutional policies to attract and retain research capacity across Europe.

At the same time, given that universities are seeking to attract bright and talented researchers and professionals, there is also still room to further improve the opportunities for mobility and for the recruitment and career development of international staff and researchers in our universities.

* Lesley Wilson is secretary general of the European University Association, EUA.